Boris Johnson's Enemy No. 1 Has Weaknesses, Too


According to London gossip, Keir Starmer, the Labour Party’s new leader, is the real-life prototype of the handsome human rights lawyer who’s the chief love interest in the film “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” Whatever the truth of that fanciful story, Starmer has made a smooth start wooing British voters.

In his former career the leader of the U.K.’s official opposition was indeed a successful defense lawyer in human rights cases, knighted subsequently for serving as Director of Public Prosecutions. Now he’s restoring Labour’s fortunes after a disastrous election and leads Boris Johnson in the polls. On important metrics such as “capable leader,” “sound judgment” and “more honest than most politicians” he beats the prime minister by a large margin. Labour is also running neck and neck with the governing Conservatives.

Every Wednesday in the House of Commons, Starmer picks apart Johnson’s bluster with forensic precision. He supports most of the government’s emergency measures to clamp down on the coronavirus, but denigrates the prime minister’s performance as “not serious” and “not up to the job.”

These are common charges. Johnson’s defects are all too apparent in his handling of a complex crisis that has confounded more capable administrators. Gus O’Donnell, cabinet secretary to three former prime ministers, abandoned political neutrality last week to criticize him for “overpromising and underdelivering.” Johnson appears “to lack a clear strategy” and “defers to medical scientists at the expense of behavioral and economic experts,” O’Donnell concluded.

If politics were a Hollywood courtroom drama, Starmer would be looking forward to a triumphant conviction. But can he win over the real jury that matters: the voters at the next general election?

The Conservative government still has a thumping 80-plus majority and more than four years to put its house in order. If Johnson gets a last-minute trade deal with the European Union and toughs out the winter health crisis he can retrieve his position.

The opposition also starts with one major electoral disadvantage. It is caught between the hammer and anvil of competing nationalisms in an increasingly dis-United Kingdom. Scottish and Welsh independence parties have decimated Labour’s traditional electoral base and in England, where 85% of U.K. voters live, the party’s last leader, Jeremy Corbyn, lost the patriotic working class vote to the Tories.

Starmer was named after Labour’s first leader, Keir Hardie, a fiery Scot, but his party, once dominant north of the border, now trails a distant third in polls there behind the ascendant Scottish National Party and the unpopular Conservatives. Many psephologists believe it’s almost impossible for Labour to form a Westminster government without SNP support. The Tories appear to have a natural majority in England.

The last time Labour let it be known that it intended to form a U.K. government with SNP support, English voters bridled. In 2015 they judged that the Scottish nationalist tail would end up wagging the Labour dog and gifted victory to the incumbent Tories.

Yet the SNP, on every reckoning, will win another massive victory in the Scottish parliamentary elections next year and will likely hold a majority of Scottish seats at the next national U.K. election.

Starmer is moving fast to dodge this political elephant trap. He has conceded that the SNP will have a mandate for a second independence referendum if it wins big again in Scotland. That still gives him the option of forming a coalition government with the SNP while reserving the right to campaign against it for the Union. He’s making the best of a bad job.

His other task is to win back non-graduate English voters who live outside Labour’s metropolitan strongholds. Working class traditionalists won’t support a politician who puts foreign interests first. Corbyn’s Irish Republican sympathies, disdain for Britain’s armed forces and softness on Vladimir Putin’s Russia cost him the support of many Labour supporting “patriots.” 

The ascendancy of Labour’s anti-nuclear, anti-American left wing under Corbyn, however, is only a recent blip in the party’s history. Starmer is wisely tacking back to traditional Labour patriotism again. Last week he attended a ceremony in honor of the Royal Air Force’s 100th anniversary that Corbyn would have ducked.

No. 10 would like to caricature “Sir Keir” as a well-heeled, liberal lawyer forever harking back to EU membership and out of step with ordinary voters. Starmer senses the danger. He’s refused to embrace the wider “culture war” agenda of the Black Lives Matter movement and rejects defunding the police. He also boasts working class credentials. His father was a toolmaker, although there are rumors he may have run a factory.

In his party conference speech last week, Starmer portrayed himself not as a liberal softy but as a crime fighter in the mold of Eliot Ness, the “Untouchable” lawman who took on Al Capone, and the prime minister as an incorrigible moral lightweight. “While Boris was writing flippant columns about bananas, I was defending victims and prosecuting terrorists,” he said, and “while he was being sacked by a newspaper for making up quotes, I was fighting for justice and the rule of law.”

Starmer also made clear he regards the EU departure as settled, although he will skewer Johnson if the prime minister fails to deliver his promised Brussels trade deal.

The future looks bright for Labour’s leader but don’t write off his opponent just yet and don’t underestimate the Tories. Many smart politicians have lost their shirts betting against “bumbling Boris.” He has proved more ruthless and resilient than his rivals. The Conservative Party also owes its extraordinarily long existence to its protean abilities. If Johnson doesn’t improve, his colleagues will dump him in favor of a new leader.

A government on the ropes is an easy target but Labour’s own message remains indistinct. Starmer’s shadow Treasury team has made no impact and the party is still not trusted on the economy. Starmer’s courtship of voters will undergo many trials yet.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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